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Alumni in Action: Xiulan Zhang (PhD '99)

Xiulan Zhang (PhD '99) focuses on social services policy in China

Dean and Professor Xiulan Zhang recalls the support she found as the first PhD student at the School of Social Welfare from mainland China. “Even with the language barrier, I felt a lot of support from both students and faculty.  I also enjoyed the class discussions and individual studies we engaged in at the School,” says Zhang, now a prolific writer and the founding director and dean of one of the most important public policy centers in China.

After completing her PhD at the School, Zhang returned to China in 1999. There she found a great need for social research and for information on successful public policy creation. With help from the Ford Foundation Zhang established the Institute of Social Development and Public Policy at Beijing Normal University, with the goal of creating a national center for training researchers and creating a think-tank for understanding and solving public issues in China.

Today the Institute has developed into the School of Social Development and Public Policy, giving students at Beijing Normal the opportunity to study social issues and public policy. Zhang is now dean of the school.

“I was very impressed with Beijing Normal’s commitment to social change and social policy,” said UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare’s Dean Lorraine Midanik. Midanik visited China in April 2010 to establish research ties with the school and made a presentation on US alcohol policy. “The School of Social Development and Public Policy was eager to collaborate with us, and I look forward to an ongoing scholarly relationship with Dean Zhang and her faculty.” 

As China goes through rapid economic growth and dramatic social changes, the country faces unprecedented challenges. For example, many children with major illness have no insurance and families are expected to pay all the healthcare costs. The Institute is working on a national health program for children. Additionally, China has 225 million migrant workers living in cities without any benefits. Environmental conditions are poor, with hazardous living conditions and the children of immigrants are not entitled to health care and education offered to Chinese children.

In addition, global warming, the world financial crisis and intensified cultural conflicts have produced social and political inequality in China. Zhang’s Institute has become a first-rate research and training center, informing public and social policy in China and around the world.

Xiulan Zhang and her colleagues have also created a series of new degree programs, and have helped shape an academic community focused on social policy, social development, social welfare and public policy in China.

“For new students entering the international social work field, language, communication skills and research methods are all important,” says Zhang, “But so too is critical thinking. That is very much needed in the field.” In China today, says Zhang, the ability to create organizations able to hire social workers to deliver services is still rare. The challenge is to create a community social service system able to handle issues of society."